Pitching The Quick Fix

Education software companies zero in on schools pressured to improve by the No Child Left Behind law -- with potential downsides for the needist students

September 19, 2004|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

LOGAN, W. VA. - Earlier this year, two salespeople drove deep into the coal country of West Virginia on an improbable mission: selling expensive education software in one of the poorest corners of America.

Logan County does not look like promising sales territory. Its mines have laid off thousands, methamphetamine labs abound, and every spring flooding creeks threaten impoverished hollows.

But for Ron Dellinger and Samiha Lamerson, the two salespeople from Plato Learning Inc., the region's despair was not an obstacle. Far from it. For companies selling education software, the poorer a place is, the better.

The reason is simple, Dellinger said: Poor schools "are under the gun from No Child Left Behind."

No Child Left Behind, President Bush's signature domestic policy achievement, is transforming public education with its emphasis on testing and accountability. Less noticed, though, is that it is turning poor schools into a lucrative target for the growing education software industry - with potentially negative implications for the same low-income students that the law aims to help.

Billions of dollars in federal funds are up for grabs as companies rush to capitalize on the 2001 law by telling struggling schools they can comply with its tough standards by buying the companies' products. In pitches sometimes sweetened with dinner cruises and other perks, software vendors make sweeping claims for computer programs that promise to assess students' weaknesses, raise test scores, and organize the data required by the law.

"We're filling the needs of schools to help them 24-7, to supply what students need," Lamerson told school officials gathered at a small high school tucked between fog-draped hills along Logan's Guyandotte River.

However, software claims of success sometimes are based on dubious studies, often performed or paid for by the companies themselves - a problem that is acknowledged even by the Bush administration. While encouraging schools to use education technology to comply with No Child Left Behind, the administration is paying for millions of dollars in studies to determine which education software programs really work.

"We're spending all this money on technology in schools and we don't know where it's effective, what the conditions are for effective teaching and learning," said Susan D. Patrick, the U.S. Department of Education's director of education technology.

Desperate not to run afoul of the law and suffer sanctions, including state takeover, many besieged educators are succumbing to the pitch anyway, buying instructional programs that often cost more than $100,000 per school or district-wide management programs that run into the millions. And by spending much of the law's funding on software, they are leaving less for such improvements as smaller class sizes, after-school programs or bonuses for talented teachers.

The new digital divide

Meanwhile, many experts in education technology worry that the push to sell test-preparation software to poor schools could deepen exactly those inequities that the law is meant to address. The law, they say, is creating a new "digital divide" just as low-income districts are finally catching up in their access to computers: While poor schools tend to buy software with repetitive math and reading exercises that produce few lasting gains, wealthier ones are using technology in ways that contribute more to in-depth learning.

The divide is on display in Maryland, where struggling schools in Prince George's County and on the Eastern Shore are spending heavily on software to try to raise test scores, while better-off schools in such places as Howard County are relying on teachers for instruction in fundamentals.

In Baltimore, schools are being bombarded with pitches. But for now they're holding out, restrained by budget deficits and by memories of wasted spending on education software in previous decades.

To some educators, the rush by software vendors to take advantage of No Child Left Behind points to one of the law's biggest flaws. While the federal government is setting tougher standards than ever before, Washington remains reluctant to dictate how districts should spend funding provided by the law or meet its requirements.

Research results not ready

The law's pressures encourage districts to buy software to raise their scores, but the government's research on instructional software won't be done for two years. The government is spending millions developing a Web site and computer program that could help districts analyze test data, but it is not requiring that districts make use of these rather than buy their own. This conflicted approach, mixing stringent standards with little guidance, sows confusion among local school officials and creates openings for vendors.

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